It used to be that a virgin in a whorehouse was less of an anomaly than a well-fed vegan in New Orleans. Sure, New Orleans is not unique as cities go when it comes to its less-than-warm embrace of vegan cuisine, but come on. We are a city known for its food industry and culture. And, despite popular perceptions, we do not all eat boudin and suck crawfish heads.
Now, this is where much of my readership might choose to roll their eyes, yawn, and turn the page to—anything but some tree-huggin’ rant about not eating critters or enjoying their dairy by-products. And if you must flee to another page, so be it; but if you stay with me, I will be honest and confess my lust.
I love nothing more than to stick my head inside a bag of fried chicken and inhale deeply, but I promise you, I’ll not eat your chicken. I became a vegetarian in 1973 in Mobile, Alabama. My parents fully expected me to die within months from malnutrition. I knew absolutely nothing about cooking, and my interest in vegetables was limited to broccoli smothered in Velveeta cheese. Dining out involved lots of grilled cheese on white bread, pasta with butter (olive oil was not yet a main staple in Mobile restaurants), or iceberg lettuce drowning in French dressing.
Possessing now, through trial and error, a bit more knowledge of nutrition, I can look back and wonder how the heck I survived those early and many years of ignorant consumption. I certainly could never have made it as a vegan at that point.
For those unfamiliar with this whole veggie thing, and without going into really strict ideology, I will sum it up simply. Vegetarians refrain from eating any critters. Yes, that also means no seafood. Vegans take it a step further to exclude all animal by-products (dairy, eggs, honey, use of leather, etc.), period. I could go into all the reasons, and there are many: health, environment, animal welfare, and so on. Vegans approach this diet in different ways. Got it? There will be a quiz.
Okay, where were we? Oh yeah, my complete lack of culinary knowledge or skills early on. I would not recommend plunging into vegetarian waters without some knowledge of what to eat—not just what not to eat. A little research will carry the novice a long way. If I had taken the effort to peruse a few cookbooks back then, I might have found some healthy pleasures in preparing critter-free food.
Restaurants, then (and even now) in Mobile, as well as in New Orleans, are just more trouble than usually worth it. Hold on! I have just pissed off a ton of chefs and restaurant-owners. There are many who try and succeed in offering veg-friendly dishes. And I will give more kudos to them later. But face it; this region just ain’t too savvy when it comes to accommodating taste buds that look for lower-on-the-food-chain yum-yums.
Ah, but there was a time when one could forget they were in unfriendly waters and dine in a café that could and did rival any New York or San Francisco vegetarian eatery. And I had the extreme pleasure to work there for four of the five years it existed. Olivia Smith owned and operated Old Dog New Trick Café on Exchange Alley within the Quarter. If very lucky, you just might get a chance to work for someone you truly respect. This was my experience at Old Dog New Trick. Finally, I could serve food I believed in. Make no mistake; I can waitress my way around a side of beef and even sniff longingly at it, but all to the chagrin of my personal ethics. At ODNT, I not only found food to lust after, I could eat it!
But food was only a part of that crazy alternative café; we were given creative license to sing, dance, and camp it up. Once a week, we had Wig Day. We all dressed in diner drag—beehive wigs, gigantic bosoms, polyester harvest, gold-and-white uniforms with smart little aprons. Terence and Brad were especially fetching. And for a few hours, I was empowered with big hair and size 44 D bosoms (I could fit an entire Sunday newspaper inside my thrift-store brassiere—light-weight padding).
I was 40 before I ever really began cooking. I’d prepare meals for myself, but they lacked variety and imagination. Olivia’s ODNT kitchen introduced me to a world of foods and skills I had never been exposed to. Not as a cook, but simply as a waitress, I gleaned skills and techniques. Before this, I had never even eaten tofu, much less tempeh, polenta, soba, udon, miso, seitan, and never knew kale was edible (had only seen it used as garnish). My palate was on its way. My ability to create food was given birth.
This segue back to Olivia’s is more than a sentimental nod to a place in time. As the vegetarian and vegan market grows stronger and larger, New Orleans is finally gaining some traction in this area. In the early- to mid-90s, I knew of four or five vegetarian cafés in New Orleans, then it dropped to near zero, but now things are moving forward for plant-based cuisine and customers. So, come on New Orleans, let’s have some faith in the spending ability of meatless diners. Hell, forget that; when Old Dog was open, customers of conventional dietary needs and desires made up at least half of our customer base. A resourceful and innovative chef can wow most any audience without the use of animal products and offer respites from meat without resorting to the tired, obligatory, pasta primavera and those God-awful sprouts.
As I stated, things are improving for vegans and vegetarians, even in our meat- and seafood-centric city. Many young and innovative chefs are baking, grilling, and roasting delicious foods, and restaurants like Seed and Good Karma Café embrace completely plant-based menus. And don’t forget all the great vegan pop-ups and markets, where talented vendors prepare restaurant-quality foods.